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Editor’s Note: This is the second half of the writer Jorge Martin’s thoughts on the origins of street art. The first part can be found here. Also, because of the busy news cycle this week, my second post on “Interpreting Blu’s Whitewashed Mural” (part 1) will appear on Monday.
If the first traces of public visual expressions in the modern period didn’t have much of an artistic will, they definitively helped develop what urban art is today. They used a visual language that other artists picked up on as effective and unorthodox ways of communicating their message to society, without the need of established art circles or more formalized practices. But now I wanted to point out some early artists who feel more closer to our notion of what a street artist is. Individuals who were or still are consciously creating art work for the street.
One of the first fine artists to leave his studio for the streets was Gerard Zlotykamien (Paris, 1940). Born during the Second World War, he grew up during the difficult years of post-war Paris. Zlotykamien started to paint ghost-like forms that work as image poems. Shadows of the moment and monuments to the ephemeral nature of life that describes the horrors of war he was forced to witness.
One of the reasons he abandoned canvas for city walls is that he was surrounded by destroyed and derelict buildings served as a perfect surface for his work.
While Zlotykamien was in Europe using decrepit elements of the city to intensify the meaning of his work, across the Atlantic, and a few decades later, Charles Simonds (1945) started his career in 1971 building “little people dwellings” out of clay in the holes and corners of the walls of old buildings around the Lower East Side. They resembled miniature pueblos and you can still see one in the Whitney Museum’s staircase, nestled in the corner of a window.
This sculptor was part of the artistic community of Soho in the seventies. He worked on the idea of the city as a living organism, so it was only natural that he started to create little signs of hidden life in the corners of the neighborhoods he would frequent.
The seventies were the years that really established the recognizable foundations for street art as we know it today. And again, it’s not because there was a a unified movement with defined characteristics that propelled what would become an artistic revolution, in fact, I wouldn’t be surprised to discover that none of these artists knew one another.
In the southern hemisphere, Alex Vallauri, who was born in Asmara, Ethiopia in 1949, is considered to be the Brazilian equivalent to Keith Haring, who elevated graffiti into the realm of museum art in the US. Not many of Vallauri’s street work have survived, and his universe was filled with kitsch, sexy women, and high-heeled boots.
Back in New York, Vancouver-born Richard Hambleton created a series of interventions between 1974 and the late eighties, which are without a doubt a fundamental episode in the history of street art. His first notorious work was the Mass Murder series, which consisted of 620 human-size silhouettes made with chalk (reminiscent of the ones police once used to outline the bodies of crime victims), together with carefully placed splashes of red paint to mimic blood. Hambleton drew his silhouettes all across North America from 1976 to 1978. Another important series by the artist was created in 1980, when he created 800 life-sized diazo print self-portraits of him in a Napoleonic posted that he pasted on city streets. The series had three titles: I Only Have Eyes for You, Putting Yourself Up for Abuse, and Spreading Yourself Thin.
In Europe, in Niza, France to be specific, Ernest Pignon-Ernest (1942) started using the urban environment as a playground in the sixties but it wasn’t until 1971 that he made his first serious attempts. His work consists of posters that mix ancient and modern elements to create emotional portraits. Informed by social justice issue, his work brings a monumental flavor to the street. For Pignon, the placement of his work in public is as important as the work itself. His emphasis on context adds another layer to his art, and in this way he was one of the first to emphasize a love of niche spaces that showcase his work.
If most of these names I’ve discussed so far may be unfamiliar to art historians or contemporary art lovers, there is one important French artist who should ring a bell. Daniel Buren began producing unsolicited public art works in 1968 by using striped awning canvas as a visual instrument. His famous stripes grew out of his own desire to simplify his own artistic vocabulary. It was in March 1968 that he decided to bring his iconic imagery to the public space, usually working illegally on billboards. His very public minimalism represented another vein of work we still see on the street today.
And Street Art Is Born …
The early 1980s with its passion for color, popular icons, and a very relaxed and fun attitude towards everyday issues, were the perfect timing for the big boom of street art. Many artists started to use the street as a field ready to be explored and used. The concept of the city as an art gallery was born and with it, a first wave of what we now call street artists were placing their work in the walls of cities all over the planet.
After these initial precursors — and I admit that what I’ve created is an impressionist portrait of a global movement more than a chronology or history — there were many others until the present. They all are one big group of artists bringing their message to the streets around the world. That is the beauty of Street Art, that is able of growing internationally overcoming language barriers, politics, as well as ethnic and religious differences, to provide a language that can be as universal or specific as an artist would like it to be.